On March 6, 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provided new and updated guidance on employers' responsibilities to protect against religious discrimination and facilitate accommodation. There are two publications—a question and answer guide entitled "Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities" and a fact sheet. These publications do not impose new responsibilities, but they provide updated advice and assistance on how employers might address complicated workplace situations and legal responsibilities. There have been several recent court decisions related to religious garb in the workplace, so this guidance comes at an opportune time.
Unlike some other protected classifications, when religion is protected it calls for both nondiscrimination and accommodation. That means that employers must be on guard to protect against outright bias (including harassment, retaliation and job segregation), but must also provide a reasonable accommodation for sincerely held religious beliefs and practices. That includes more than beliefs and practices that come from adherence to an organized religion and extends to sincerely held ethical or moral beliefs.
Employers need to remember that unlike some protected classifications (race, national origin), an employee's religious beliefs may change over time so that employer decisions are not necessarily static. Some practices are relevant only at certain times of the year, generally associated with religious holidays.
Much of the recent litigation has come from issues related to religious dress or grooming requirements which, at times, can be challenging to employer. Employers may not automatically refuse to accommodate an employee's religious clothing or grooming practice even if it violates an employer policy and like many employee requests, employees are not required to raise the issue with any magic words. As might be expected, the EEOC is skeptical of employers' desires to maintain appearance standards (even when they relate to important branding or marketing needs) when those standards conflict with employee's religious observances. The most common issues that arise in court challenges seem to be hair—long or short, covered or not, facial or clean shaven. But religious dress may require carrying a ceremonial knife, or women to wear skirts or avoid makeup, or require religious insignia of some form.
Of course, there are limits to any requirement to accommodate and religion is not different. Certain dress or grooming standards might present safety, security, or health problems. This new guidance provides many examples to assist employers in deciding whether their concerns about accommodation requests are valid, and looking into the kinds of workarounds that might permit employers to meet their legitimate business needs while still allowing their employees' full religious freedom.
Employers with employment issues related to religion should consult either the fact sheet or the guidance (or both) in the case of any unexpected or complicated request for accommodation or for general compliance assistance. The documents can be found on the EEOC's website (search for "religious garb and grooming"). Treat them as a supplement to the 2008 compliance manual that is also posted on the agency's website.